VERMILLION — “You make one bar, you go to the next.”
For the 39-year-old University of South Dakota graduate and current assistant track coach, however, his third appearance at the Olympic Games — where he has twice finished in the top eight in his event — will be his last.
Though Miles finished outside the qualifying mark at last month’s trials in Eugene, Ore., he previously met the London Olympics standard back in 2011. As he heads to England next Thursday, Miles is not only battling an Achilles injury but the fact that this is his last competition.
“It’s a little surreal in terms of calling it quits,” he said during a media session in Vermillion a week ago. “It’s exciting to be able to do the things I’m doing here coaching-wise. That fills that void a little bit.”
That void is about to be filled with the preeminent athletic event in the world — a stage Miles knows all about.
“I can do some things without much pain, but then a couple of things definitely show in terms of how bad it is,” he said. Normally, the most intense pain comes in acceleration patterns or in dead springs. “I try not to test it too much, because the more you do that, the more you put in that inflammation.”
Still, even getting to the Olympics at age 39 — injury or not — is an accomplishment in itself, his coach, Lucky Huber said. Huber has been with Miles every step of the way, from an incoming college freshman, to a four-time Division II All-American, to his 1996 USD graduation, and now a three-time Olympian.
“You think back to when he first came to town, we went down and had cheesy fries and a Mountain Dew, and sat down to plan out where he wanted his career to go,” Huber said. “Track and field athletes can kind of fall off the edge pretty fast, but the university has done a good job supporting him.
“Hopefully things go well in London, but if not, you look back and think, ‘Wow, what a great career.’”
For Miles, there’s not a debate on ‘will this be the last meet?’ Yes, this is his final shot at the Olympic games. Where as many professional athletes continuing playing long past their prime, Miles will in fact get to determine his finale.
“That’s really the neat thing about this,” he said. “When I was in Beijing, my friend (and fellow vaulter) Jeff Hartwig was 40, and I just remember us talking and being envious that he gets to decide how he wants to go out.
“I’m fortunate to have that be the case.”
As he has progressed in his career, certain things have had to change, especially recently with the Achilles injury. Gone are the days when youthful energy translated into big jumps.
“The biggest thing that I’m noticing is just that the speed and the power isn’t there like it used to be,” Miles said. “What it’s done is forced me to be a better technician.
“I’ve been learning how to get more out of a jump and out of a take-off, and get every ounce of energy out of the pole has been a necessity.”
Consistently one of the best American vaulters in the world, Miles has earned two USA Outdoor titles (2008 and 2011), an indoor title (2003) and a World Athletics Final title (2008). Referencing his earlier remarks about the “pole vaulter’s mindset,” Miles was clear that his goals have never wavered.
“I always want to feel like I’m in the top 10 in the world, and every world championship team or Olympic team I’ve been a part of, I’ve at least been in the finals or in the mix,” he said. “When I can’t feel like that, that’ll be when my cue is.”
When it comes to the 2012 Olympics, Miles will likely need a personal best to even reach the medal stand.
“I know I’ll have to jump as high as I’ve ever jumped, to get a medal. That’s a given,” he said. “There are just too many kids out there jumping really high.
“You’ll have to jump 19-2 or 19-4 to even be thinking about medals. I’ve got 19-4 before, so I feel like I’m capable.”
The qualifying round is next Wednesday at Olympic Stadium, with the finals set for next Friday.
Renaud Lavillenie, a 25-year-old from France, enters with the top mark of 19-7. Bjorn Otto from Germany enters with a mark of 19-4.
Still, there’s a possibility that weather may even the field, Miles said.
“Who knows, you may get there and it’s 60 degrees and rainy,” he said. “That’s the ultimate equalizer. It’s just a matter of who navigates the weather better.”
Joining Miles on the United States vaulting squad are Brad Walker (31) and Jeremy Scott (31), a native of Norfolk, Neb. Miles was that age when he made his first Olympic appearance in 2004, but now, his career has taken him on a whole new path — that of a coach.
Huber said Miles, who coaches the USD men’s and women’s vaulters, will take on added responsibilities when he returns from London. Among those will be the behind-the-scenes logistics and an increased role in recruiting.
“When you can go into a house and sit down with a kid and say, ‘I was on three Olympic teams,’ the kids you’re recruiting, that’s their goal,” Huber said. “The (USD) administration has made a nice commitment to him. We need him on our staff and we’re happy he is.”
As he prepares for his final competition on the biggest stage, Miles is still able to joke about being the “old guy” in the field. Sure, he doesn’t mind the references, because he can remember when he was an 18-year-old freshman vaulter at USD, dreaming about the days when he could be an Olympian.
“It’s more of an envious thing. You see these kids running down the runway, and you can see the youth,” Miles said. “I remember thinking a while back that I’ve been jumping longer then the French kid has been alive. That gives you some perspective of the cycle.
“At some point, your time is up,” he added. “My time isn’t necessarily up yet; a month from now, it will be.”
BY JEREMY HOECK